From Europe to China: Shanghai’s remarkable place in Jewish refugee history

In the mid-1930s, as Jews were becoming more and more persecuted in Germany and Austria, thousands sought refuge in Shanghai.

Because no entry visas were required to enter the Chinese city — it already had a tenable Jewish population, thanks to an immigration wave of Sephardic Jews in the mid-19th century and Russian Jews in the early 20th century — it was relatively easy to go there from Europe.

It just wasn’t so easy, psychologically, for many Jews to leave the countries they considered to be their homeland, according to Steve Hochstadt, professor of history at Illinois College, who was at the Hillel Jewish University Center in Pittsburgh last week to speak in conjunction with the opening of the exhibit “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941): An Exhibit of Storyboards and Artifacts,” which will run through Oct. 15.

The exhibit is housed at Hillel-JUC, and is presented in collaboration with the Jewish Refugees Museum of Shanghai. It consists of 45 storyboards outlining the process of immigration from Europe to China, the various struggles and cultural adaptions, and the personal stories of survivors and their families.

During World War II, about 18,000 European Jews fled to Shanghai, the majority settling in the Hongkou district.

Hochstadt, author of “Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich,” has been researching the Jews of Shanghai since 1987, when he first interviewed his grandmother on the subject. She and Hochstadt’s grandfather left Vienna during the 1930s, finding refuge in Shanghai.

But there were many more Jewish families who could have left for the Chinese safe-haven, but chose not to, Hochstadt said.

These families who chose to stay in place despite the worsening conditions for Jews felt “an intimate connection” to their home country, he said. “Hardly anyone took this desperate measure to go to Shanghai.”

For many Jews, Germany or Austria truly represented a homeland, Hochstadt said. Many had fought for those countries in World War I, and their self-image was that of a German or an Austrian citizen, which made it very hard to leave, he said.

It was not until Kristallnacht, Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, that German and Austrian Jews seriously started to think about going to China, according to Hochstadt, but many still felt very torn about leaving their homes in Europe.

For his book, Hochstadt interviewed many of these Jews who ended up seeking refuge in China and discovered commonalities among them, including the fact that many times, families going to Shanghai found themselves splitting up.

In Hochstadt’s own family, while his paternal grandparents fled to Shanghai, his father chose to go to the United States with a visa he was able to obtain. His father’s sister ended up on the Kindertransport to England.

Although Shanghai was under the control of the Japanese during World War II, the exhibit, Hochstadt noted, “is about the welcome that the average Chinese gave to the Jews who came.”

“There were good relationships between Jews and their Chinese neighbors,” he said. “It is true that Jews’ relationships with the Chinese in Shanghai was as good as with their neighbors in America or Britain.”

Although Jews who immigrated to the United States, like Hochstadt’s father, hardly spoke a word of English, they generally were eager to learn the language and assimilate, he said.

But for Jews in Shanghai, becoming part of the fabric of the country was much more difficult, he said, noting that the language itself was a huge obstacle.

“Most Jews did not want to be in Shanghai, and they thought they’d go somewhere else after the war,” he said. “The Jews in Shanghai tended to cluster among themselves and create their own community.”

The Jewish community tried to re-create Jewish-German culture while in China, establishing cafes, cabarets and even a mostly secular Jewish school. The school became the community center, where people would play Ping-Pong, attend workshops, and even participate in a Jewish Boy Scout troop.

Photographic scenes from that community are displayed in the exhibit, among them a wedding at the Ohel Moshe Synagogue — the building that now houses the Jewish Refugees Museum of Shanghai. A wall in that museum lists the names of 13,000 Jewish refuges who found safety there.

Almost all Jewish refugees in Shanghai survived the Holocaust. After World War II, most left China and immigrated to the United States, Australia, Canada and Israel.

The exhibit is underwritten by the University of Pittsburgh Confucius Institute and Hanban, the Hillel JUC, the University of Pittsburgh Jewish Studies Program and the University of Pittsburgh Asian Studies Center.

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